Man, where to start with this thing…
If you haven’t read it, The Fountainhead is about Howard Roark, an architect who spends 800 or so interminable pages pitting his genius and individualism against the forces of mediocrity and collectivism. I’d go into details, but really that’s about it.
As a book, it was deeply flawed.
First off, every single character of any importance is a complete sociopath. Occasionally they’ll use phrases like “love”, but whatever is being described doesn’t seem to be an emotion in the conventional sense but more like an outward expression of some kind of ethical premise.
There’s no actual dialog in here. No real human talks like any of these people. Nobody ever sounds tired or angry or misspeaks in any way. Everyone makes the most meticulously-calibrated statements, and you end up with two characters taking turns reciting essay-length disquisitions for 20 pages or so.
And those are the Important People. The unimportant people are barely two-dimensional. Comic book villains’ henchmen have more depth of character than most secondary characters. It’s clear that Rand has no use for any of those people. It’s also clear that those people constitute about 99.999997% of the world’s population.
Things get even worse when society at large is being described. Basically you take these flat non-entities and… now there’s a bunch of them. That’s not how society works. A big group of people, even dull people, take on a character of its own, with its own logic and its own decision-making. It’s the difference between a bee and a swarm.
But not in the world of The Fountainhead. In that world, it’s just a collection of non-people who suddenly start doing things because Someone Important made them do it.
I suppose some of this is inevitable. There are two goals for this book at odds with each other: tell a story and send a message. You can’t do both of those things well. Thus in any situation where she could add a bit of reality or make the message more explicit, Rand chose the message every time.
Real people, even heroes, are fallible. They act petty and hold grudges, they lose their temper and do something dumb. Sometimes when they do the right thing, it’s all for really bad reasons.
But not in The Fountainhead. Everyone here is either purely noble or purely a scoundrel, or alternates between the two extremes based on having made some Important Decision. People just take some kind of moral stand and everything they do proceeds logically and unwaveringly from that stand.
Real people don’t work like that. But describing real people would dilute the impact of the message Rand’s trying to send, so that all took a back seat.
An interesting — and kind of unsettling — alternative theory is that Ayn Rand really might not have known that what she was describing was not reality. Perhaps she was herself a cold-blooded, calculating sociopath and she figured everyone was like that, and nobody was ever motivated by anything but personal convictions and trade-offs and compromises didn’t really exist.
On top of all that, there’s a problem with her conception of how human progress works. The message in this book is that all progress everywhere, 100% of the time, is the result of larger-than-life genius individuals working, not for money or status, but for love for the work they’re doing.
Certainly there have been eccentric monomaniacs who picked up the football of human understanding and ran down the field with it. The Isaac Newtons, for instance.
But usually progress is messy. Even messier than how real people work. There’s no one person who’s going to reinvent architecture from the ground up. Most new ideas are bad ones. There’s often a very good reason people keep doing the same thing they’ve always done and there’s no shame in continuing to do it that way. This doesn’t make you a “second-hander”, it makes you not an idiot.
In reality, progress comes from all over the place. Sometimes it’s diligent hard work. Sometimes it’s a moment of inspiration. Sometimes it’s tinkerers discovering something when trying to solve a completely unrelated problem, and their solution is stumbled upon years later after being overlooked by everyone else.
If you’re lucky, you might move the football a couple of inches forward in your life. Most people do nothing with it. Some people inadvertently move it backwards.
Sometimes it actually does work out like in the book. Someone comes along, looks at the problem differently, and points out things that could work better, and the good people of the world celebrate.
Although by celebrating the visionaries, you end up enticing people to the field who are in it for the prestige and not out of love. This is not to say that you can’t contribute to human understanding because you want prestige, or wealth, or to have chicks dig you, but that’s not what the book would have us believe.
That said, I like the message, mostly. There’s a lot to appeal to it. The idea that you have value as a person, that you should follow your vision and not let people’s criticism get to you. However, not caring about criticism doesn’t entail also not having the slightest bit of interest in the fate of anyone but yourself.
I’m sure this is an easy philosophy to hold when, as I noted above, you are clueless about and have no use for 99.999997% of actual people. Personally, I like people and I find that part a bit distasteful.
Even from a utilitarian standpoint, this doesn’t make sense. If not for the Common Man, who, exactly, does Ayn Rand think is going to drive rivets and pour concrete for Howard Roark’s buildings? Some noble genius slumming it because he can’t find a job in this unjust society? (Actually, my answer is “robots will do it”, but I’m 70 years in the future. I don’t think she had automation in mind.)
In typical Rand fashion, there are two — and only two — alternatives for society. Either total individualism and total celebration of genius for its own sake and the average person can go pound sand. Or total collectivism, total celebration of mediocrity and the individual and the genius can go pound sand. I suspect there might be another alternative that doesn’t entail every genius having a moral obligation to be an utter sociopath.
Rand’s philosophy entails a fundamental denial of a huge component of human nature. Pure individualism is just not natural. Humans are social animals. The world we evolved in was very difficult. Ten thousand years ago an individualist, unconcerned with what anyone else thought of them, would have been booted out of the tribe and been eaten by jackals within a day or two.
Any book like this has to be thought of in terms of its place in history, since it’s an element of its time and place.
To some extent I’m probably being too hard on Rand’s characters. The people in the early 20th century had a strength of character that is almost completely missing from people today. The idea of a Howard Roark, making a decision about how he wanted to live his life and living it whatever the consequences, probably wouldn’t have seemed as implausible in her time as it does to me.
(Ironically enough, this kind of internal fortitude was greatly undermined by the self-esteem movement, which started in the 60s and based in large part upon the work of… Ayn Rand. But that’s a whole other blog post.)
At the time of its writing, the ideas of collectivism were on the upswing and the individual was under assault. There really were Ellsworth Tooheys walking the earth, although none of them were quite the cartoonish super-villain depicted there. Read some Upton Sinclair to get a flavor. Just mentally make all the good guys into bad guys and vice versa.
To the extent this book helped fight off the Ellsworth Tooheys of the world, it’s to be commended, though the victory of the individual has been far from an unmitigated boon for mankind. Most people who express their individuality don’t end up unleashing their inner Howard Roark, they just end up being a complete asshole to everyone around them.
Then there’s the damage done to architecture. The premise of the book is that Howard Roark is a genius whose vision was so incisive and clear that he felt no need to be constrained by the conventions of the past. Because he was a genius.
The problem is that, for the next thirty years after this book came out, all the people who passed through Architecture school thought they were the next Howard Roark. Thus anything built before their graduation date was useless garbage to be swept away to make room for their vision.
Unfortunately, most architects are average, and the average architect is not Howard Roark. So every time you pass a mid-60s-era eyesore that was once a majestic art deco building from the 20s, you can thank Ayn Rand. Or — more likely — a parking lot that was once a mid-60s-era eyesore that was once a majestic art deco building from the 20s.
As an aside, the work architects did in the 20s and 30s was often amazing. It was really a high-point in American civilization. Walk around downtown Detroit sometime and you’ll see it. Reading this, I was continually irritated at the suggestion that the only good architect at the time was fictitious.
With all that said, it was interesting and I’m glad I slogged through it. I’d just suggest, if you’re going to read it, to consider it as some variety of morality play. Try not try to make these characters into real people, but more as the personification of Genius or Mediocrity or Power-seeking.